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A Nutritionist’s 10 Irresistible BBQ Menu Ideas

It's time to cook up an outdoor feast of burgers, hot dogs, steak, and ribs. Or is it? A dietitian and classically trained chef offers tips for firing up your cookout with bigger flavor and better nutrition.

Midsection of female friends grilling food on barbecue grill at yardMaskot/Getty Images

Summer sizzle

Prime grilling season is Memorial to Labor Day, with Independence Day as the peak. In-season fruits and veggies around July 4 include cantaloupe, mangoes, peaches, strawberries, watermelon, corn, eggplant, green beans, peppers, summer squash, and tomatoes. When fresh produce is seasonal, it’s at its greatest color, ripeness, flavor, and nutritional value.

And even though it’s often natural to think of the grill as a home for mostly meats, there are clever new ways to amp up the nutrition in your BBQ bites. Get added protein from pulses (like dry beans and peas, chickpeas, and lentils), tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, and many plant-based meat alternatives. These can be scrumptious and eaten in addition to, or swapped for, animal-based proteins.

So to take your cookout to the next level,  Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian and author of the upcoming 2023 cookbook, The Plant Love Kitchen (National Geographic), tells The Healthy @Reader’s Digest how you can get the most out of your summer holiday menu.

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Colorful grilled summer seasonal vegetables skewersistetiana/Getty Images

Triple up on veggies or fruits for skewers

“Aim for a ratio of 3:1—that’s three pieces of produce for every piece of fish, chicken, or meat,” Moore says.

We love this: “Thread thick wedges of peaches or nectarines and red onion with chicken or fish for plant-powered skewers everyone will love.”

Healthy Grilled Basil Mozzarella Caprese Paninibhofack2/Getty Images

Panini pleaser

Make this plant-based caprese panini for a finger-friendly way to serve fresh tomatoes at a cookout.

Watermelon lemonade with lime and fresh basil leaves on concrete background. Refreshing summer drinkJuliaMikhaylova/Getty Images

Serve fruity thirst-quenchers

Whirl up slushies. “Blend frozen cantaloupe cubes with fresh mint for a naturally sweet and hydrating treat,” suggests Moore. Or serve seasonal fruit salsajuicy watermelon salad, or watermelon gazpacho—all three recipes courtesy of our sibling site, Taste of Home.

Grilled eggplant with yogurt, parsley, garlic and pomegranate on a blue ceramic plateSvetlana Monyakova/Getty Images

Steak it

Slice eggplant into thick “steaks”—or, choose jumbo portobello mushroom caps—and grill with the classic trio of oil, salt, and pepper.

Or upgrade eggplant “steaks” into gyros. In late summer, savor cauliflower “steaks” or “steak” tacos, too.

grilled pineapple slices on a plate with vanilla ice cream and topped with nutsAzurita/getty images

Do dessert

Make smoky grilled pineapple, strawberry, or fig skewers. They’re mouth-watering straight off the grill, as well as over ice cream.

Or, serve a wow-worthy bowl of layered fresh fruit salad, like Rainbow Fruit Salad.

Summer chickpea pasta salad with tomatoes and basilCarlo A/Getty Images

Power up side salads

“For a protein-packed side, try chickpea or red lentil pasta as the base for your cookout pasta salad,” says Moore, who finds “chickpea pasta pairs especially well with tomatoes, olive oil and fresh basil.”

Or keep your chickpeas whole, like in this curried chickpea salad with grilled veggies.

Vegetarian skewersMizina/Getty Images

Transform tofu and tempeh

Marinate and grill tofu triangles as “steaks” or tempeh cubes on skewers. Go global with an Asian-style soy-ginger dressing or Greek-inspired lemony-dill marinade. Or just go with a marinade for all seasons.

Ingredients for pesto on white groundWestend61/Getty Images

Get nuttier (and seedier)

Pesto is a yummy sauce for grilled skewers or tossing into pulse-based pasta salad. Prepare Thai peanut or almond sauce for grilled satay. And sprinkle crunchy pumpkin, sunflower, or sesame seeds—or even “everything bagel” seasoning—anywhere.

Bourbon Baked Beans in a Cast Iron SkilletCandice Bell/Getty Images

BBQ your beans

“Add white beans to a cast iron skillet with all of the usual ingredients for baked beans,” says Moore. “Cook in a closed grill to infuse smoky flavor while the beans simmer.” Brilliant.

square Flatbread pizza slices on white marble countertopClaudia Totir/Getty Images

Have a slice

Simply grill flatbread, then top with protein-packed edamame pesto. Or dazzle guests with a grilled pizza—shop the cauliflower pizza crust brands dietitians love themselves.

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Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN
Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, is a classically-trained, plant-forward chef, registered dietitian nutritionist, award-winning cookbook author, professional recipe developer, media personality, spokesperson, and food writer. She's author of several cookbooks, including her newest, The Clean & Simple Diabetes Cookbook. Jackie has been a healthy cooking instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education for more than 20 years, a private plant-based cooking coach, and a former national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She's made guest appearances on dozens of TV news shows.